Charles Leerhsen’s Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty is turning out to be one of the more eye-opening and quotable books I’ve read in years. Here’s Leerhsen on the famous/infamous batting race of 1910, between Detroit’s Cobb (left, above) and Cleveland’s Napoleon Lajoie (a player so popular the Cleveland franchise in those days was called the Naps in his honor), which was not-quite-settled when Cobb sat out the final day, perhaps seeking to protect his seven-point lead, while Lajoie went eight-for-eight in a double-header in St. Louis and ended up hitting .384 to Cobb’s .383.
Seven of Lajoie’s eight hits were bunts down the third-base line, all with the Brown’s third-baseman playing in the outfield grass—and making no adjustments. From pages 239-240:
“Lajoie later said that he received a telegram of congratulations that evening signed by eight members of the Tigers. He never revealed their names, but presumably none was Ty Cobb. The story of the 1910 batting race has often been used to make the point that Cobb was widely disliked, and that many of his own teammates, as well as the St. Louis Browns, were pulling for Lajoie, who, though he had a temper—I’ve already mentioned the famous fight with (Elmer) Flick, and he once spit tobacco juice into an umpire’s eye—also had the decency to be not quite so outlandishly good as Cobb, and therefore to not attract so much attention, which he could in turn be resented for. Sports in 1910 still bore traces of nineteenth-century notions about honor and manliness and team play that, for some people, made standing out as an individual problematic—it was a little like standing out in Garrison Keillor’s not-so-imaginary version of small-town Minnesota. The president of Harvard University from 1869 to 1909, Charles William Elliot, thought that ball-carriers in football ought not search for holes in the line that could lead to gaudy breakaway runs, but should do the modest, gentlemanly thing and plow headfirst into the nearest man-pile. (Eliot also didn’t like baseball because he believed curveballs and other deceptive pitches to be unsportsmanlike.) Cobb stood out on purpose—it was an essential part of his “psychological” approach. Meanwhile the Frenchman was by all accounts avuncular and unpretentious—he wanted you to call him Larry; he carried a needle and thread to repair his (and other people’s) clothes, and, if you sat next to him on the bench, he might talk to you about his chicken farm. Probably even Cobb conceded that Larry was more likable than him.
But, Cobb aside for the moment, it was almost certainly not a universal outpouring of love for Nap Lajoie that led to the spectacle at Sportsman’s Park. One must also consider that many people, including players, gambled on baseball in those days, and that the Chalmers race (i.e., the batting race—then named after a company offering s new car to the winner) was a hot proposition with the bookmakers from coast to coast. (Peach Pie O’Connor [Browns manager] told the press he was leaving town soon to attend—and bet on—the World Series.) Many thousands likely wagered on who would win the car. It would be naïve to assume that money didn’t play a larger role in the Chalmers scandal than anyone’s pro-Lajoie, or anti-Cobb, feelings.
I’ve read a lot of pretty good history books where I didn’t learn as much as I did in those two paragraphs. And I was reminded of other things—like, for instance, the Black Sox scandal that happened nine years later did not spring from a vacuum.
The kicker to the above–and to how history is made–is that the subsequent stink resulted in the American League mysteriously finding a game that had been “missed” in the previous record-keeping in which Cobb had conveniently gone two-for-three, restoring his batting average lead by a fraction of a point and allowing him to be declared the official American League batting champion of 1910.
The Chalmers company gave both Cobb and Lajoie automobiles (probably a bigger deal to both men than who won the crown). Research conducted decades later concluded that the American League office had simply duplicated a game in which Cobb had a sufficient number of hits to allow him to win the batting title without looking too closely into what had transpired in St. Louis on the final day of the season. It took another decade and a thrown World Series for baseball to get serious about gambling.
As for Cobb being especially unpopular with his teammates (one of several canards Leerhsen debunks in this bio), one finds out a few pages later that they liked him sufficiently to stage baseball’s first player strike when they felt he was unjustly penalized for going after a crippled fan who had mercilessly heckled him during a game in New York. (How merciless? The New York fans took Cobb’s side–even though his heckler had no hands.) The strike lasted one game before Cobb himself begged his teammates to take the field because he knew how crippling the fines being threatened would be to them and their families.
You really should read this book.